Tag Archives: World Cup 2018

Parity in the World Cup?



Recently, I had a cousin ask if there was a power shift in world soccer this year, noting that many World Cup results were out of the norm. Her observations are not wrong:

DRAWS and UPSETS
-Argentina (5th in FIFA Rankings) 1-1 Iceland (22nd)
-Mexico (15th) 1-0 Germany (1st)
-Brazil (2nd) 1-1 Switzerland (6th)
-Japan (61st) 2-1 Colombia (16th) (1st Asian nation ever to defeat a South American team at World Cup Finals.)
-Croatia (20th) 3-0 Argentina (5th).

CLOSE VICTORIES:
-France (7th) 2-1 Australia (36th)
-Tunisia (21st) 1-2 England (12th)
-Uruguay (14th) 1-0 Saudi Arabia (67th)
-Iran (37th) 0-1 Spain (10th)
-France (7th) 0-1 Peru (11th)
-Germany (1st) 2-1 Sweden (24th)

Her first thought, and a reasonable one, is that there is a growing parity in world soccer, as lower tier teams keep getting better. To use an American example, we are no longer surprised to see a mid-major Gonzaga, Wichita St., Butler, etc. in the Final Four. In fact, it’s a point of discussion to pick the one mid-major that will advance that far. However, I think these odd World Cup results are the result of a few different factors.

PREPARATION
The groups for World Cup Russia were drawn on December 1, 2017. The first game was played June 14, 2018. That gave teams six months to prepare for their first match. Theoretically, teams were still fine-tuning rosters, confirming travel arrangements, and handling other routine business, and they also were preparing for the other two group stage games. However, statistics show that teams that win their first match advance at an outrageously high percentage compared to teams that lose. Therefore, it’s reasonable to assume that teams spent most of the time preparing for the first game.
Iceland and Switzerland had the perfect game plans to neutralize Messi, Neymar, and the rest of those nations’ offensive talent. Mexico talked about how meticulous they prepared for Germany, and the benefit to controlling their group with the early win.

OVERCONFIDENCE
I think the top teams were all guilty of overconfidence after seeing their groups. Who out there wouldn’t have expected Argentina to advance? Or Spain and Portugal to escape their group? Even Germany and Brazil are not 100% safe.
In my mind, there is no other reason why the top teams aren’t scoring more, or at least dominating close victories. The overconfidence is evident when you see players attempting individual feats of brilliance rather than making the simple, safe pass. Overconfidence is evident when a team “flips the switch” and finally seems to come alive in the 70th or so minute. It’s in the goalies who look at their defenders with wonder when a ball goes in their net It’s in the faces of players who pass the ball to Neymar, Messi, Suarez and Cavani, or Pogba and Griezmann and wait for them do something amazing.
(Yes, this may seem counter-intuitive to the above point, but just remember that the top nation’s had six months’ preparation time, too.)

X-FACTORS
There are always unforeseen variables that can affect any team.Some teams may succumb to travel weariness. Red card suspension and yellow card accumulation can affect others. Injuries are always possible. Own goals have been in an abundance so far. Specifically, Argentina is mentally shaken, and several members of Sweden even got food poisoning! Is there some x-factor out there for the other tournament favorites yet to be reported?

There has definitely been a trend of odd results this World Cup. And the mid-major soccer nations are undoubtedly getting better. However, we’re only through half of the second round of group stage games. I fully expect the favorites coming into the World Cup to re-assert themselves and advance to the knock-out rounds. (Well, maybe not Argentina.)


A Little Less Conversation … – World Cup Days 4 & 5



…a little more action!

This Elvis lyric seems appropriate considering Belgium’s 3-0 victory over debutante Panama, and England’s late victory over almost-spoiler Tunisia on Day 4. Day 5 picked up where the previous day left off, with Japan’s historic victory over Colombia (1st time an Asian country defeated one from South America in a World Cup), Senegal upsetting Poland, and Russia continuing to roll with a 3-1 victory over Egypt. My last post asked for more action and more “Wow”, and I got it. (Maybe I should play the lottery?)

My biggest take-away was how much Belgium looked like a title contender. They played so patiently, absorbing the pressure from an energized and excited Panama squad, then picked out their opportunities and picked apart Panama’s defense. De Bruyne looked so in control, and his connection with Lukaku can’t be understated. Belgium has so much to offer, even without usual captain Kompany. Mertens had a beautiful goal, and he must be accounted for by every defense. They were a dark-horse favorite to win the World Cup, but they certainly moved closer to “favorite” status with this dominating performance.

England, another talented squad, underwhelmed. Yes, they won in dramatic fashion, but they can’t afford to miss so many opportunities against the better opponents to come. All it took was one stupid Kyle Walker elbow to give Tunisia a penalty, and the game was seriously in question. I appreciated the excitement of Kane’s goals. My eyes are always drawn to him when he plays. His movements are so smooth, he strikes with precision, and is always in the right place at the right time. However, Panama lost track of him on two occasions, and it cost them points. Also, as an Everton fan, it was great seeing Jordan Pickford start in goal for England. I hope he continues to play throughout the tournament. He could be the England #1 for a long time, and I’d love to see him bring that experience and confidence back to the Toffees and the Premier League.

Here come the Russians!
While maybe not the red scare of the ’60s, this Russian squad has scored 8 goals in two games, conceded once, and have shown to be a dominant offense in this tournament. Granted, they have played Saudi Arabia and Egypt (FIFA ranked 67th and 45th, respectively), but that doesn’t take away from what they’re doing offensively and how they control the middle-third of the field. They’ll be advancing to the knock out rounds against a team from Group B, most likely Portugal or Spain.
Meanwhile, fan-favorite Egypt looks all but eliminated in what will be remembered by fans as the “what could have been” World Cup. (Also, my podcast co-host Mike ran a FIFA 2018 World Cup simulation that had Egypt in the finals. So who knows what could’ve been had they had a full, healthy roster.)

 

The second round of group stage games are in full force, and a lot of story lines are developing. What are you most excited about? How are your predictions looking? Let us know in the comments below.


Waiting for Wow – World Cup Day 4



I’m still waiting for goals, and I’m still waiting for any team to show that they deserve to win this tournament. Today’s results were Costa Rica falling 0-1 to Serbia, Mexico defeating Germany 1-0, and Brazil drawing Switzerland 1-1.

Four goals. That’s it. Yes, I’m focusing on goals, but that’s what it takes to win. Today’s teams aren’t Iceland, trying to advance on points. These are tournament favorites who can’t find the back of the net. Combine this with a terrible effort from France, and Spain seemed to be the only country that showed they came ready to play. My favorite game so far was Peru’s 0-1 loss to Denmark. Peru played upbeat and exciting, they wanted to win. Am I being critical implying that other nations don’t want to win? Damn right, I am.

Strategically, teams need to win their first game. It gives them control in their group, pressures other teams to push for points, and allows their coaches to manage games as they see fit. They can rest players in the final group game, and start planning for the knock-out rounds. Statistically, teams that win their first game advance to the next round over somewhere in the range of 84%. Psychologically, winning your first game instills confidence in your players and your system, and it puts fear in your opponents. So it makes no sense for a team to not play their hardest and try to win their opening match.

So why the lackluster performances by these top teams? I honestly don’t know. There could be many reasons, like overconfidence, entitlement, indifference, or plain laziness. (The story ‘Casey at Bat’ comes to mind.) There are conspiracy theorists saying the refs are manipulating matchups for more favorable/appealing knock-out round games. Finally, there’s a legitimate concern that the club game has overtaken international competition as players’ and fans’ primary measure of success. Also, that there’s not enough time for national teams to practice together because of club commitments. I don’t believe the club arguments, at least not yet. When measuring all-time great status, players of today are compared to those who’ve won World Cups and national team glory. (Maradona/Messi, Neymar/Ronaldo/Pele, are two that immediately come to mind.) Neymar himself spoke about these comparisons in an interview aired before today’s Brazil game. These are also professional players while dedicated their lives to the sport, grew up together, and have been in their national federation systems for years. So why Brazil can’t beat Switzerland (or Argentina beat Iceland, or France dominate Australia) is just beyond me.

I wish I could point to one thing, say “Fix it!”, and then be treated to nothing but extraordinary soccer for the next two weeks. I know this won’t happen, and I worry for the future of the World Cup without stellar play by the world soccer powers and enjoyable play by the rest, especially in light of an expanded field in 2026. Meanwhile, I’ll keep watching and waiting to see something that truly makes me say “Wow.”

 

*Spain and Ronaldo’s individual performance being the only exception.


Davids vs. Goliaths – World Cup 2018 Day 3



France vs. Australia (2-1)
Where were all the goals?
France, a tournament favorite, loaded with talent (Pogba, Giroud, Mbappe, Griezmann), could only muster one goal from the run of play against an Australia team that needed a playoff to qualify for World Cup 2018. The referee exerted more offensive prowess, awarding a penalty for each team in the second half. They were both converted by Antoine Griezmann (58′) and Mile Jedinak (62′), respectively.
I did not enjoy watching this game. France looked disjointed, waiting for anyone else to make a play. I expected more, and I think they expected more from themselves. Meanwhile, the Australians seemed to be more worried about not letting France score than do anything to help their own cause. They played an ugly game of soccer, intent on disrupting France with fouls, rather than trying to actually maintain their own possession. If it worked, maybe I’d feel differently, and maybe the rest of the soccer viewing world would, too. However, they executed their terrible game plan and still lost. A late Pogba goal (81′), one that barely cleared the goal line, gives France the three points. France should have won, but anyone who laid money on les Bleus might want to start hedging their bets.

Argentina vs. Iceland (1-1)
Again, where were all the goals?
This is the World Cup. I expect more from the best, and Messi and Argentina disappointed fans all over the world in the most lop-sided statistical game I have ever seen. Iceland, to their credit, played a beautiful defensive game, at times with all 11 men behind the ball. They kept formation, rotated when needed, and played smart, compact soccer. Argentina, for all its flair, couldn’t break them down (despite some nifty play by Angel Di Maria, from whom I’d still like to see more). Also worth mentioning, the biggest name on the Iceland roster (at least before the game), Gylfi Sigurdsson, was practically non-existent. Yes, the free-kick specialist had a hard time making an impact when a team plays as defensively as Iceland. But the best players will find the game and make an impact, and he underwhelmed.
The biggest moment, though, came in the 64th minute. The official awarded a clear penalty to Argentina, and Messi steps up to the spot. Everyone in the world thought it was game over, except for Iceland goalkeeper Hannes Halldorsson. He guessed right, Messi didn’t place it well, and the man looking for international redemption comes up short again. Meanwhile, Iceland comes away with a point, comes away with confidence, and comes away with the respect of the world. VIKING CLAP!

Today’s later matches feature Peru vs. Denmark and Nigeria vs. Croatia. Not the David and Goliath matchups so far, but maybe they’ll produce some more goals. I wonder if Croatia and Nigeria play a more attacking style, knowing that mighty Argentina currently has 1 point with a 0 goal differential. Enjoy Day 3 of the tournament!


World Cup 2018 Day 2 – Groups A & B Action



Egypt vs. Uruguay (0-1)
Soccer is a funny game. After 89 minutes, Group A favorite Uruguay could not find a goal against Egypt. To Egypt’s credit, they played stalwart defense, nullifying Cavani and taking away the space in which Suarez is used to operating. Egypt was prepared, and it showed. But a soccer game lasts 90 minutes.

Egypt made two late mistakes, giving up two dangerous free kicks. Cavani took the first, his curler slamming off the post. But Uruguay kept attacking, winning a second free kick that was basically a short corner. This one proved to be the break through for Uruguay, with Gimenez heading in the game winner in the 89th minute. Sadly, Mohamed Salah was only seen shaking his head on the bench and didn’t see any game time. I thought Uruguay would win, but I feel for Egypt after watching how it unfolded. I’m happy that soccer fans got to actually see a goal, after watching Uruguay’s potent attack produce only near-misses. Maybe Russia set the bar too high in the opening match?

Morocco vs. Iran (0-1)
Soccer is a funny game. One bounce can change the fate of nations. And that’s what separated Morocco and Iran in their opening match. A Moroccan own goal in second half stoppage time gives Iran the victory.

Morocco dominated possession (63/37). Amine Harit played an excellent match. The game featured mostly mid-field play by both teams, evidenced by only five total shots on goal. I kept waiting for a team to assert itself, but they seemed content to play for a draw, and perhaps play the odds to advance on points. But with the loss, Morocco needs nothing short of a miracle to advance, as divine intervention is the only way I think they’ll take points against both Spain and Portugal.

Portugal vs. Spain (3-3)
Soccer is a funny game. On Day 2, fans of soccer were already treated to the best player vs. the best team. That is, if you consider Cristiano Ronaldo the best player and Spain better than Germany, France, and the reigning European champions Portugal. This is the type of game that FIFA and the fans want. Powerhouse vs. powerhouse, stars vs. stars. Would it live up to the hype?

Yes, and quickly. CR7 draws and converts a PK in the 4th minute. Diego Costa equalizes for Spain in the 23rd, but not without controversy: VAR checked whether he fouled Pepe, the Portugese defender, but there was no clear and obvious error in not calling the foul. (Watch the replay and watch Diego Costa’s career, and you know it was a foul. But you also know it was a brilliant individual effort to beat two Portuguese defenders.) In the 44th minute, Portugal plays a long ball from the back line which eventually ends up at the feet of Ronaldo, who slams a low shot right at a waiting David de Gea … which bounces of his gloves and into the net. 2-1 Portugal at the half. Despite controlling the game, Spain was trailing their continental rival on the biggest stage.

But Spain was unphased. Their combination of skill, experience, and sheer desire produced another Diego Costa goal in the 56th and a Nacho goal in the 58th. Nacho’s 20-yd blast may already have won goal of tournament. I woke my kids up from their nap with my reaction. But soccer is a funny game. Not to be outdone by the best team (who dominated possession 62/38), the best player completes the hat trick in the 88th minute, scoring with a beautiful free kick. de Gea looked lost.

Perhaps the high-scoring draw between these two favorites was fitting. Spain should still win this group. Portugal should advance, as well. But can Ronaldo can keep scoring 2-3 goals every game? And can Spain can stay disciplined the rest of their group stage? They should, but soccer is a funny game.

Parting Words
What else is there left to see? After only four matches, we’ve seen a blow out win, a last minute victory, an own-goal defeat, and the best player score a hat-trick against the best team. What will Day 3 hold? Can any other match live up to Portugal vs. Spain? Comment below and start the discussion.


World Cup 2018 Kicks Off – Russia vs. Saudi Arabia Recap



The 2018 FIFA World Cup has officially kicked-off, and there was no shortage of goals in the first game … well, at least from the perspective of the host nation. Russia defeated Saudi Arabia 5-0, using a strong performance from their subs.

I thought Saudi Arabia would play better, even though I believed Russia would win the game. Saudi Arabia had plenty of time to prepare for this crucial first match. However, they played right into Russia’s strengths: mid-field pressure and counter-attacks. I was impressed with the pressure that the Russian midfield exerted. To me, it resembled an NBA-style, half-court trap. Their strikers collapsed back, the wingers pushed up, and the central midfielders pinched in, resulting in multiple Saudi turnovers and inaccurate passes. This strategy was perfect in this game, but a faster or better passing team should be able to break out against the Russians. After giving up a goal in the 12th minute, Saudi Arabia failed to sustain any meaningful possession, and Russia simply kept up the pressure.

I would have liked to see more out of Saudi Arabia, if only to evaluate the Russian defense. The goalie didn’t have much to do, and I’m not sure how he’ll handle a striker like Mohammed Salah of Egypt, or the combined offensive talent of Luis Suarez and Edinson Cavani of Uruguay. These three players are in the prime of their careers, and each is coming off a stellar season of scoring. I also wonder how the Russian defense will handle a technically superior team in Uruguay, and if they will employ a “bunker-and-counter” strategy. Russia started in a 4-5-1 (or a 4-2-3-1, if you’re really into tactics), and I wonder if they’ll keep the same formation over their next two matches. However, it might not truly matter against Uruguay, as Russia and Uruguay don’t meet until the third group stage game. If they both win their first two matches, their final match might only be for position in the knock-out round, and the coaches may choose to rest some of their regular starters.

With their first victory, Russia is in control of Group A. They have 3 points and are +5 in goal differential. With such an early advantage, they are free to play their style of soccer, and don’t have to worry about pressing for points (at least not yet). I still think Uruguay wins the group, as they are clearly the most talented team. What Russia really has done with this win is forced Egypt to beat both Saudi Arabia and Russia, and for Uruguay to try to overcome the goal differential if it desires to win the group. Uruguay opens against Egypt tomorrow, June 15, and can basically see themselves through with a win. They should beat Saudi Arabia in their second match, and then can take it easy against Russia in their final group stage game. This group schedule really shaped up nicely for Uruguay and Russia, assuming both teams win their opening games.

What else did you see? Who are your picks to advance? Please comment below and contact us with any other thoughts. I hope you all enjoyed the opening game and that you enjoy the rest of the tournament.
-Nick


Ep 15 – World Cup 2018 Preview



It’s almost here! World Cup 2018 kicks off June 14, and we at Sons of a Pitch Soccer couldn’t be more excited! In this episode, the hosts review the 2026 bid process between the United Bid (United States, Canada, and Mexico) and Morocco, comparing their ratings, infrastructure and stadiums, and global impact. Next, we break down all the MLS players and who could make the biggest impact for their respective countries. And if that wasn’t enough …

Mike ran a complete WC 2018 simulation on FIFA 2018, and we go over his predicted group winners and his surprising final matchup. Nick tells him where the video game is wrong, and we review the actual favorites. Who is your favorite to win? Who will most likely surprise the field? Leave your comments below, and enjoy the greatest sports tournament in the world!

 

*Editor’s Note: Since recording, Belgium’s Laurent Ciman has been named an alternate to their World Cup roster and is not on the final, 23-man roster. Sorry for any confusion. (We just really like him.) Here is FIFA’s official rosters page.


MLS Players in World Cup 2018



The 23-man rosters for World Cup 2018 in Russia have been released and there is a contingent of MLS players included. Below is a graph breaking down the players’ club and country.

Costa Rica and Panama have a notable group of players based in Major League Soccer. Is their success or failure a reflection on the MLS as a league? Let us know in the comments below!

Last Name First Name Club Country
Ciman Laurent LAFC Belgium
Matarrita Ronald NYCFC Costa Rica
Calvo Francisco MNUFC Costa Rica
Waston Kendall Vancouver Costa Rica
Guzman David Portland Costa Rica
Wallace Rodney NYCFC Costa Rica
Urena Marco LAFC Costa Rica
dos Santos Jonathan LA Galaxy Mexico
dos Santos Giovani LA Galaxy Mexico
Vela Carlos LAFC Mexico
Cummings Harold San Jose Panama
Escobar Fidel NYRB Panama
Machado Adolfo Houston Panama
Murillo Michael NYRB Panama
Torres Roman Seattle Panama
Godoy Anibal San Jose Panama
Yotun Yoshimar Orlando City Peru
Polo Andy Portland Peru
Svensson Gustav Seattle Sweden
Gaber Omar LAFC Egypt

*This list based on ESPN’s roster release article, found here. If any player has been omitted (and I’m not talking Zlatan out for Sweden), either ESPN missed it, or Nick needs reading glasses.